After several weeks of controversy, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates — an Obama administration holdover fired by President Trump in January — is set to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 election at 2:30 pm Eastern Monday.
Much of Washington has been waiting with bated breath for this testimony, which is expected to describe just what Yates told the new Trump administration about the conduct of its first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was fired in February when his misrepresentation of his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition was leaked.
There’s already been controversy over whether Republicans tried to prevent Yates from testifying, since a House Intelligence Committee hearing where she was scheduled to appear was abruptly canceled in March by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), an ally of the administration.
However, today’s hearing will be chaired by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who has been harshly critical of the president’s position on Russia. James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence who served for most of the Obama years, will also testify.
In recent days, a pair of stories by the Associated Press’s Julie Pace and the Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Adam Entous have unearthed new details about Flynn’s conduct that could preview some of what may come out at this afternoon’s hearing.
Meanwhile, Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported that the White House is seeking to “brand Yates as a Democratic operative who was out to get Trump.” And Monday morning, the upcoming hearing was clearly on the president’s mind.
Unsurprisingly, he’s still maintaining that the real story isn’t Flynn’s lies about what he talked about with Kislyak but rather the fact that those lies leaked:
Ask Sally Yates, under oath, if she knows how classified information got into the newspapers soon after she explained it to W.H. Counsel.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2017
So though we of course don’t yet know what will come out at today’s hearing, here’s some relevant background on Yates, Flynn, and the Russia scandal that could help in understanding it.
Who is Sally Yates again?
Sally Yates had spent more than two and a half decades in the Justice Department in various prosecutorial and management roles before President Obama nominated her as deputy attorney general, the No. 2 job at Justice, in 2015. Then on Inauguration Day this year, she took over as acting attorney general, because Loretta Lynch had resigned and Trump’s pick to replace her (Jeff Sessions) hadn’t yet been confirmed by the Senate.
Yates’s tenure under President Trump was brief but eventful. On Trump’s 11th day in office, Yates announced that she would not defend his travel ban aimed at people from seven predominantly Muslim nations from the various court challenges against it, saying she was not “convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.”
So that evening, Trump fired Yates, and the White House released a remarkable statement attacking her personally, calling her “an Obama Administration appointee who is weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration” who “betrayed the Department of Justice.” (The travel order was rewritten after being blocked in court, and the newer version is also currently blocked in court.)
But it later emerged that there had been even more drama going on behind the scenes, on another topic entirely. The Washington Post reported that just four days before Yates’s firing, she had given Trump’s White House counsel, Don McGahn, a disturbing briefing — warning that then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was “potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail,” per the Post.
What did Yates tell the White House about Flynn?
To understand the significance of what Yates revealed about Flynn, we have to turn back the clock a bit, to the transition.
On December 29, the Obama administration announced that in retaliation for Russia’s interference in the US presidential election (by hacking prominent Democrats’ emails), it would impose a new series of sanctions on Russia.
That same day, Flynn — Trump’s national security adviser-in-waiting — spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times. Russian President Vladimir Putin ended up having a muted reaction to the new sanctions, and President-elect Trump tweeted praise for this forbearance the next day:
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
When news of the Flynn-Kislyak contacts that day was later leaked, questions naturally arose about whether Flynn had discussed the Obama administration’s planned sanctions with the ambassador, or whether he had made any assurances to him. The Trump team’s response, put forward by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, was that sanctions were never actually discussed.
But US spies had evidence — apparently obtained through surveillance of Kislyak — that Flynn did in fact discuss sanctions with the ambassador. Yates was briefed on this evidence, and seems to have decided that she had to inform the White House, which led to her briefing of McGahn on January 26. She seems to have framed this as a warning that Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail that could expose his lie.
The White House then did nothing that we know of with this information ... until an account of Yates’s warning about Flynn leaked to the Post two and a half weeks later, well after Yates’s firing. The night that story broke, Trump fired Flynn.
The president later claimed Flynn was fired “because of what he said to Mike Pence,” but since he had learned about that weeks earlier, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Instead, it seemed that the White House was willing to keep Flynn on in spite of that, until the Post story about what Flynn actually did became public. The resulting embarrassment seems to have driven them to cut Flynn loose.
And as the president’s tweet today seems to show, he still appears more fixated on the topic of who leaked about Flynn than the topic of Flynn’s alleged lies to other administration officials.
More unflattering information is coming out about Flynn
The basic account described above has been known for weeks. Still, it has been based mainly on anonymous sources and on what the White House has chosen to confirm. Yates hasn’t spoken publicly or testified yet, let alone Flynn (who now appears to believe he is in legal jeopardy and is seeking an immunity deal).
Indeed, more information about Flynn, Russia, and the transition has leaked just in the past few days and weeks.
- Earlier in April, the New York Times’s Matthew Rosenberg reported that Flynn had not included a $45,000 speaking fee from RT (the Russian-backed TV network) on his financial disclosure forms for his federal post. It also came out after Flynn’s firing that he was being paid to represent the Turkish government’s interests during the presidential campaign.
- Over the weekend, the AP’s Julie Pace reported that in late November, a Flynn aide named Marshall Billingslea made “a curious request” that the Obama White House give him a copy of the classified CIA profile on Ambassador Kislyak. Pace writes that this was the only profile Billingslea ever asked for for Flynn.
- Also this weekend, the Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Adam Entous reported that Billingslea allegedly did this because Trump officials “were so concerned that Flynn did not fully understand the motives of the Russian ambassador,” and wanted to make sure he knew he was dealing with a seasoned operative tied to Russian intelligence. They also report that, per “officials,” Billingslea warned Flynn that Kislyak was likely being surveilled by the US.
- And Monday morning, NBC News reported that President Obama warned Trump against naming Flynn national security adviser during the transition — though this seems to have been based on general concerns about Flynn’s temperament rather than any connections to Russia. (Obama fired Flynn from his job heading the Defense Intelligence Agency, reportedly due to management issues.)
Overall, one of the biggest hanging questions here is whether Flynn was freelancing when he spoke to Kislyak about sanctions during the transition, or whether he was doing so at President-elect Trump’s request.
And of course, there are even bigger questions about the Trump team’s contacts with Russia in general — a topic that FBI Director James Comey confirmed in March is now being investigated by the FBI.